An Australian navy vessel penetrated Indonesia's sovereign waters early today and returned 44 asylum seekers to Indonesia, but search and rescue agencies insist it wasn't the first turn-back under the Abbott government.
The Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas has confirmed that would-be refugees aboard a wooden fishing boat made a distress call to the Australian authorities on Thursday evening, saying their boat was leaking.
Under a protocol established between Australia and Indonesia last year, under then transport minister Anthony Albanese, the HMAS Ballarat was given quick permission to come into Indonesian waters to make the rescue.
The crew deemed the asylum seeker vessel, which was carrying 39 men, one woman and four children, to be unseaworthy, and lifted the passengers off the ship.
Also under the search and rescue protocol, the Ballarat then went closer to Indonesian territory where it met an Indonesian ship dispatched by Basarnas in calmer waters. In the early hours of Friday morning, the passengers were offloaded and brought back to Indonesia.
"This is the third time since the memorandum of understanding was signed last year that a similar operation has taken place in this rescue zone," said Basarnas's Jakarta region operational chief Ahmad Firdausy.
A similar search and rescue operation and transfer also took place overnight involving an Australian Customs vessel and Indonesian agencies off Kupang, West Timor. The boat's engine had stopped.
A turn-back or tow-back under Abbott's Operation Sovereign Borders would differ from a rescue operation in that the asylum vessel would be deemed seaworthy, and the Australian authorities would order it back, or tow it back into or near Indonesia's waters.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said he would reject that policy.
- The Age